17th August 2014

“Facing our fears” (Matthew 14:22-33).

Last Monday afternoon, a yachting event in Northern Ireland nearly turned into a catastrophe – you may have read about it in your newspaper. More than 80 small sailing dinghies, crewed by people of all ages, were hit by a sudden squall in Strangford Lough, and several of them capsized. It was first thought that up to 100 people, including many children, could be in the water, so lifeboats and air-sea rescue helicopters were called out and local hospitals were put on alert for a major incident. Fortunately, as the afternoon wore on, it became clear that things were not as serious as they had seemed at first. Most of the sailors merely ended up with nothing more than slight cuts, scratches and bruises together with mild hypothermia; nevertheless two of them had suspected broken limbs, and another suffered a minor head injury. It all could have been very much worse.

We all know that the sea can be scary: we only have to think of large ships sunk by freak waves, or of the appalling consequences of a tsunami. Even sheltered or inland bodies of water can be dangerous: each year we hear of people drowning because they dived into an old gravel pit and got caught in water-weeds under the surface, or because they got too close to a mountain torrent in full spate. And, of course, water must have been much more perilous in ancient times, when the forces of weather were not fully understood, when boats were propelled only by the power of wind or human exertion, and when there were no modern aids to safety such as lifejackets, radios or even compasses. You simply had to cling on and pray for your life.

The Sea of Galilee is, of course, is not a sea at all but a lake; in fact it is rather smaller than Loch Lomond, the largest body of inland water in mainland Britain. (Both are about the same width, but Galilee is not as long or deep). The Sea of Galilee lies in a rift valley well below sea level and is the lowest freshwater lake on Earth. It is fed partly by underground springs but its main source is the River Jordan which flows through it from north to south. The warm waters of Galilee have supported commercial fishing for more than two thousand years; it is especially noted for Tilapia, the so-called “St. Peter’s Fish” although stocks have recently plummeted due to over-fishing in the past.

As we all remember from our Sunday School days, many of the stories of Jesus occur around, and even on, the Sea of Galilee. Jesus calls its fishermen to become his disciples. He preaches on its beaches and even from a boat moored offshore. He performs miracles in the villages around it. He sails across it on more than one occasion. And, one morning after his resurrection, he cooks an impromptu barbecue breakfast for his disbelieving disciples. This lake is the familiar and comforting backdrop for so much of the Gospel story; we have all seen pictures of it and we have all visited it in our imagination.

In today’s story, however, this lake turns nasty. The bare bones of the tale are this: Jesus tells his disciples to sail across the lake while he goes to pray alone. The disciples make heavy weather of the crossing because a storm blows up, so severe that it threatens to engulf the boat. Not unsurprisingly, they fear for their lives; but then they see the amazing sight of what appears to be Jesus, walking to them on the top of the waves. This apparition – for that’s what it seems to be – terrifies the disciples even more, they probably think that it is an angel death. But Jesus cries out, “Don’t be afraid, it’s only me!”

It’s at this point that the story takes an even more unexpected turn. For impetuous Peter cries out, “If it really is you, Jesus, then tell me to walk across to you”. Jesus says, “Come”. So Peter gets out of the boat and, at first, appears to make good progress. But then he panics and starts sinking; Jesus has to rescue him but first reproves him for his lack of faith. As both men clamber into the boat, the wind stops blowing. And the disciples are left amazed by what they have seen.

Well, this story is too far-fetched to be literally true, isn’t it? And I have to be honest: miracles do strain at our credulity! I have come across a number of ingenious attempts to explain away this one. One is the suggestion that Jesus had made a set of water-shoes, little rafts if you like, which he had strapped to his shoes and allowed him to walk across the lake. But one wonders whether the disciples would really have been convinced by that when they had to find space for those shoes on their boat! Another idea, suggested in the comic book “A Year at St. Yorick’s” by Adrian Plass and not intended to be taken seriously, is that Jesus had trained two shoals of fish which swam together invisibly just below the surface, allowing him to stand on their backs. One wonders how they coped with the waves, or what would have happened if they had suddenly decided to dive!

Rather more mundane is the thought that Jesus knew the location of several sandbanks in the Sea of Galilee and walked on them, rather like those gentlemen who sometimes play cricket on the Goodwin Sands at low tide; the problem here is that the professional fishermen in the boat would have been far more likely to know the whereabouts of any shallow water than Jesus did! Finally I came across the apparently scientific theory that a minor earthquake occurred directly below the Lake, causing so much sediment to swirl around that the water temporarily assumed the consistency of thick custard. This would seem to explain both the waves and then Peter’s inability to walk on the water as the silt sank back down to the bottom; but, directly beneath the Internet article where I found this enticing idea, someone had posted a detailed comment tearing it to shreds!

And so we are left – as so often with miracles in the Bibles – with three possible approaches. One is to say that the whole story was concocted by the Gospel writers to give credence to the belief in Jesus as the Son of God. But – just as with the Resurrection itself – one could hardly imagine the early disciples (who, remember, didn’t just number 12 but at least 120) putting their lives on the line for Jesus when they knew their faith was based on a lie. Another common approach is to say that the disciples simply imagined what they saw, or genuinely misunderstood a perfectly natural phenomenon; after all, they did not understand modern science nor the power of the imagination. But, while this idea may seem attractive, I find it highly patronising to our Christian forebears who were by no means stupid or ignorant. Indeed, as farmers or fishermen, they may well have been far more in touch with the natural world than we are.

Which leaves us with the final option: that this story (and the story of the Feeding of the 5000, which we looked at last week, and many others in the Bible) is, in fact, the unvarnished and literal truth; that the Gospel writers did not get the facts wrong or reinterpret them; that, in fact, Jesus really did perform or participate in a miracle. “Ah”, you will say, “but all these miracles contravene the laws of science and physics, they simply could not have happened”. To that comment I would simply say, first, that there are no such laws: these are merely our expectations of what will happen when certain conditions are met, based on hard empirical evidence; that is the scientific approach. But there is absolutely nothing to say that these events have to happen; no-one has written a law which forces them to.

And I would go further: we believe in a God who is the Creator and Sustainer of our world. Is it not feasible that he can suspend or overturn – albeit temporarily – the mechanisms by which the world usually functions? We must beware of imprisoning God within our limited understandings – and we must also remember that our universe is far more complicated, and far less predictable, than we thought fifty years ago. Those natural “laws” which we once thought were inviolate are now often regarded within the scientific community as “best fit” explanations and predictions; they are not 100% certain.

Well, I wanted to say all that ... but I haven’t really said anything about what this story may mean to us today! I think that the key probably lies in the thought that stormy waters – a force of nature which humans are helpless to control – are often used in the New Testament as a symbol of chaos, evil and disorder; there is a sense in which they are rebelling against God’s peaceful rule which decrees that they should lie peacefully in their appointed place. This means that, when Jesus walks on the water, he is not just performing some kind of stunt or party trick; this act displays not just his authority over nature but also his dominion over that chaos and evil. This demonstration over power can only mean one thing: he is truly God. To use technical language, we are looking at something called a “theophany”: a direct revelation or disclosure of God among us.

This is underlined by the words that Jesus uses when he speaks to the disciples. In our English Bibles he says something like, “Take heart, it is I; do not fear”. However a more literal translation from the Greek would be, “Take heart, I am, do not be afraid”; and that would have had huge significance to Matthew’s Jewish Christian readers. For those words, “I am”, are the name that God had called himself when he spoke to Moses by the burning bush. By using this phrase, Jesus isn’t just saying, “Hi guys, it’s me!” but “Listen – it is I, none other than God himself”. This means that this story isn’t just saying that Jesus has been given power by God to walk on the water; it’s saying that he is actually the God who created the water in the first place! As one commentator says, the disciples are “confronted with the inexplicable reality of a God who controls chaos with his toes”.

I think that the Christian community of Matthew’s day – and we must always remember that the books of the Bible were written to real people in real circumstances – would have identified with the disciples. Life for Christians in the latter part of the first century wasn’t easy; they would have seen themselves at risk, battered by powers they could not control, often persecuted and made scapegoats for the misfortunes of the Roman Empire. The earthly life of Jesus now seemed to be a long way back in history; they felt very alone. But, this story says, they should not give way to despair, for Christ will come to them even as they feel that circumstances are about to submerge them. They are to be like Peter, daring to move out in faith towards him, demonstrating courage and hope even in their distress.

I do wonder what this story might say to the poor Christians of Iraq, ordered to leave their homes by the Islamic State extremists on pain of death and perched on their desolate mountain? These people are clearly not about to drown in any literal sense; but their situation is almost too awful for us to contemplate. Will Jesus come to them in their distress? Will he provide a pathway out of their danger through some political miracle, or give them sustenance through air drops? Can they in any way trust that “all things will work together for good” while they are still in their plight and evil seems to have gained the upper hand? Or – and the thought must have entered their minds as it has ours – has God simply abandoned them? Somehow the realities of life seem to mock our faith; is God as truly in control of our chaotic existence as this story implies? We want to say, “Yes” – but can we?

I’d like to take these thoughts a bit further, and tell you about something rather startling which I had never noticed before: that the disciples were only facing imminent death by drowning because Jesus had made them get into that boat and set sail. These were no happy-go-lucky holiday-makers, floating out to sea on an airbed; they were experienced fishermen who may even have looked up at the evening sky and said, “It would be madness to put to sea now; anyone can see that there is a storm brewing”. But Jesus gave them no option: the story is quite clear that Jesus – a mere landlubber – “forced” or “compelled” them to set off. They must have been reluctant to obey.

Now, I may be pushing this story beyond its limits. But this little phrase suggests to me that Christians should not see their faith as a refuge from the turmoil and chaos of the world. a bolthole from the pressures and questions of life. Quite the opposite: God insists on propelling us into a world which is certainly perplexing and possibly dangerous, leaving us apparently adrift and reliant on our own resources but, in fact, discovering that Jesus comes to encourage us just at the moment when we feel we can take no more or cope no longer. We are called to cross the waters of life’s “tempestuous sea” but there is no guarantee that we will feel safe and secure as we do so. To say, as an old children’s hymn declares, that “we can smile at the storm” when Christ is with us is a naïve hope; the best we can usually hope for is that he will reach out a hand to reassure us.

Well, I doubt if many of us are likely to be setting sail in the next few days – although we might be going for a cruise on the “Orwell Lady”, a trip across the Channel to Holland, a visit to “Fellowship Afloat” at Tollesbury, or a paddle around the Mere at Thorpeness! But I am sure that we are all aware of the chaotic world in which we live; indeed, we may have been holding back from watching the news because it is so distressing or overwhelming. But, of course, our world has always been full of disorder, pain and inexplicable events; god-fearing people have been trying to make sense of it since the dawn of history. And the questions that Christians face today are these: can we believe in a God who, despite all appearances, really does hold the world “in is hand”? Do we believe in a Christ who, despite his apparent inactivity, can still calm the waves’ fury? And do we trust in a Spirit who can still inspire us to at least make an effort – however unsuccessfully that effort may turn out – to walk upon the water?

I don’t pretend that that kind of believing in God is easy; it’s not. But it is surely far, far better to believe that than to simply concede that meaningless chaos reigns.